Last week, Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer declared that our State Constitution provides that education is “… a fundamental right …” and that every child in Pennsylvania “… is guaranteed a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically …”
The decision comes after Cohn Jubelirer spent most of last year immersed in overseeing an eight-year-old lawsuit brought against key state government officials by a representative group of financially hard-pressed rural and urban school districts.
Cohn Jubelirers’ decision seeks to upend the hard reality that many Pennsylvania school kids can only get the education afforded by the low property wealth tax base of where they happen to live.
After having fought their way through a wave of preliminary arguments brought mainly by legislative Republicans, the petitioner school districts finally got a chance at trial to tell their story about the daunting details of inequality.
Cohn Jubelirers’ decision seeks to upend the hard reality that many Pennsylvania school kids can only get the education afforded by the low property wealth tax base of where they happen to live. It’s been many decades since state taxes made up a hypothetical 50-50 share of school costs with local districts.
Students in have-not districts are, according to the Court’s opinion, being “… denied equal protection of the law …” But the judge’s decision now sets up the state Court as the protector of some 300,000 students enrolled in the struggling one-third of the state’s 503 school districts.
A decision both moral and political
While Judge Cohn Jubelirer’s decision, following precepts set forth in a 2017 Supreme Court opinion by Justice David Wecht, is both deeply moral and very necessary, it is also, in practical terms, pointedly political since it leaves solutions to school underfunding to the political process.
This means it’s up to the new administration of Gov. Josh Shapiro, the slim Democratic majority now in control of the state House, and the Republican-controlled state Senate, whose party after a dozen years has been unseated as sole hegemons of the appropriation process.
While the Governor and the House Majority Democrats agree with the Cohn Jubelirer decision, the majority Senate Republicans are, so far, signaling that they will not be mollified. They may try to hold up additional funding until the next election by hiding behind culture-war, non-negotiable ideas.
It could also be, though, that the political muscle of local school boards will have the final say on the timing of a state decision.
A total fiscal year budget solution is going to have to make up the shortfalls of the have-not districts, meet the growing needs of the state’s southeast suburban districts (many of which are now Democratic), and continue to hold harmless the shrinking northern tier and southwest districts (most of which are MAGA Republican).
The annual increased cost for such an all-in political solution will require an estimated $3 to $4 billion to be tacked on to the current state education budget of $13.3 billion.
While Judge Cohn Jubelirer’s decision … is both deeply moral and very necessary, it is also, in practical terms, pointedly political …
The biggest pot of the tax money for such a solution would appear to lie in a direction that former Gov. Tom Wolf proposed eight years ago: taxing the extraction activities of the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, however, successfully blocked Wolf with its political muscle and campaign funding machine. For the past decade, they’ve had a lock on the Republican House and Senate leaderships.
Nowadays, though, it’s worth it for the new governor and House Democratic leadership to take another crack at the gas lobby. Even more multi-billions of dollars of PA dry and wet gas are being exported to European democratic nations that are seeking to break gas contracts with the Russians since that country’s assault on Ukraine.
Is the Legislature finally poised to take advantage of the tax opportunity, as a way to comply with Cohn-Jubelirer’s ruling? Is there another path — financial or political — to bring education funding in line with the state’s Constitutional obligation?
We shall soon see.
Charlie Bacas spent 20 years in the state government, including in the Governor’s Office of Bob Casey and as chief of staff to House Majority Leader Jim Manderino. He lives in York, PA, where among civic positions he’s served as Redevelopment Authority chairman.
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